What Butterflies Need Besides Nectar
by Naomi Mathews
© Naomi Mathews. All Rights Reserved
It seems whenever the word butterfly is mentioned it is immediately connected with the word nectar. This is entirely appropriate, since nectar is without a doubt the primary food source of butterflies.
There are, however, additional elements some butterflies need to augment their survival. Butterflies will seek these needs until they find them, whether in your garden, your neighbor's, or in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, their natural habitats are dwindling, either from adverse environmental changes or from the need for man to develop still more homes, factories, and roads. However, zealous butterfly gardeners can provide or help restore some of these important elements.
About puddles for butterflies
Remember how much you enjoyed playing in puddles when you were a youngster? I surely do! I went out of my way to walk right through a puddle, rather than skirt around it. Even knowing I'd get into a peck of trouble from my dad or mom for getting my only pair of shoes soaking wet didn't stop me.
Unlike children, butterflies don't need puddles simply for play. Neither do they need them for cooling off--they prefer shady places for that.
Why then do they need water from puddles in addition to nectar? Do they just get thirsty from imbibing all that sweet nectar? Read on, my friend, for more on butterfly puddles.
In researching this question, I found several answers. Referring to one of my previous articles, Gardening for Flying Flowers, you will find a brief outline of the anatomy of butterflies. The butterfly's mouthpart, or proboscis, is used to probe for and drink nectar from flowers. Their proboscis is like a long, spiral-like tube and works in a remarkable way, similar to that of an elephant's trunk. As the butterfly forces blood into this spiral-like tube, it then becomes straight. This type of mouthpart means that the butterfly feeds primarily on liquids as opposed to their caterpillars, which have chewing mouthparts.
There are certain minerals that some butterflies, such as swallowtails, sulfurs, and blues need that are not provided in a diet of nectar alone. These minerals are found in standing water, or mud puddles. On learning this, you may be inspired to dash right out into your garden and make a mud puddle or two so your butterflies can get their daily "mineral fix." Not a bad idea! Just another healthful way to attract butterflies to your yard.
You have probably noticed butterflies drinking from almost anyplace they can find water. Maybe you've seen them fluttering around your drippy outdoor faucet, or checking out a water sprinkler that left a small puddle. In natural habitats they often drink from the edges of streams or beneath waterfalls. I found it remarkable that butterflies release the water they drink almost immediately after drinking it. Yet amazingly, they manage to absorb the minerals they need in the process.
There is yet another reason why butterflies--especially males of certain species--enjoy puddles. They love to congregate at puddles, much like men in many parts of the world enjoy gathering at Starbucks® for a great cup of espresso! Can't you just picture a flock of these colorful fellows perched around their favorite puddles, perhaps discussing the latest reports about the price of nectar and such? Or, are they maybe gloating about which female they just won for their mate? I'll leave this up to your imagination.
Simple puddle-making ideas
There is really no specific way to create a puddle that is better than another. The best puddles are probably natural puddles formed after a gentle rain. But who wants rain every day just to please a butterfly? Or, what if you live in an arid area where rainfall is sparse?
Butterfly puddles can be created using most any type of containers that will hold water. These can be clay or plastic flower pots, buckets, milk or juice containers, or any similar container that holds a half gallon of water or so. Select a spot where the container won't be in your way, but will be easy for butterflies to spot. Choose a nice sunny spot, as this is what butterflies prefer.
Dig a hole deep enough to bury your container to the top of its rim, then fill it with a combination of small rocks and soil. Use the soil from your garden, as it contains the minerals butterflies seek from puddles. Consider creating several puddles in different areas of your yard. Even if you have a very small yard with just some flowering planter boxes, you can still create "puddles" and place them nearby. Butterflies don't care how large your yard is; they only care that what is in it meets their needs.
Next, fill your buried container with water. Do this for several days until the soil in it becomes saturated, leaving a standing puddle. Continue to check the container often, making sure it always contains standing water. If watering your yard with a sprinkler, the container will usually get enough water to maintain a daily puddle. Otherwise, simply add water regularly with a hose or watering can. Either way, it won't be long until butterflies will begin to frequent your "handmade" puddles.
If you don't wish to create permanent puddles, choose an area where you can make several shallow depressions in the soil in different places using a spade or your hand. Following a refreshing rain or an irrigation session, water will stand in these depressions long enough for butterflies to find the puddles. Although butterflies are very self-sufficient, enthusiastic butterfly gardeners can help by supplying this one simple thing--a puddle!
Basking areas--what and where?
Have you noticed that butterflies are rarely seen on cloudy days? This is because all insects are cold-blooded and can't regulate their body temperatures like we humans. Gardeners should also provide areas where butterflies can bask when it is sunny and warm. This helps to warm their wings for flying. Basking areas can be made by interspersing several flat rocks in your flower beds. In rural areas, an old tree stump, a log, or a piece of driftwood will serve as a perfect basking spot.
Another popular basking place can be made right in your birdbath by placing several smooth flat rocks in it for butterfly landing strips. They will love sitting there with folded wings just to rest and warm their colorful wings. Butterflies have many natural instincts that serve them well in all weather conditions. Wise gardeners need only provide their props!
Cover and shelter
Butterflies need protection from wind, weather, and predators. They like shady places such as trees, shrubs, or vines where they can sit to keep warm on cool or cloudy days. Both shelter and cover can be easily provided by blending areas of shrubbery, trees, or rockeries into your landscape design. When taking cover from predators, butterflies also hide in such areas. Mother Nature has been extremely kind to butterflies, and the gardener can be her greatest helper!
Butterfly feeders as a nectar supplement
Butterfly feeders have become very popular and many garden centers and catalogs sell them. They differ in design from hummingbird feeders in that they provide a flat surface on which the butterfly can land easily. Butterflies have a keen sense of smell and are attracted to nectar in feeders just as they are to flowers. Nectar mixes can be purchased or made from sugar and water. It is critical to clean butterfly feeders regularly as this prevents deadly bacteria from growing in the nectar.
Some enthusiasts using butterfly feeders have seen both butterflies AND hummingbirds attracted to them. What could be more delightful than seeing both "flying flowers" and "jewels of the sky" sipping sweet nectar together?
(Copyright August 1998 by Naomi Mathews) -- Originally published on the Internet at Suite 101 in the "Gardening" area.